Entertainment & Arts

Northern Ballet's Jane Eyre targets new audiences

Dreda Blow and Isaac Lee-Baker in Jane Eyre Image copyright Guy Farrow
Image caption Northern Ballet's chief executive Mark Skipper says Jane Eyre was "a pretty obvious choice"

Ballet is sometimes seen as a hard thing to sell to the general public, who may harbour misconceptions about what it is like and what is expected of them when they watch it, but that has not dampened Northern Ballet's efforts to find new audiences.

Last year, the Leeds-based company used a revival of their 2002 Wuthering Heights production to target people who had not seen dance live in areas which chief executive Mark Skipper says get "little or no classical dance provision".

As part of the same project, they are returning to the Brontes as a source for this year's enticement with an adaptation of Jane Eyre - put on "by chance" in Charlotte Brontes's bicentennial year.

Skipper says Charlotte's most famous work was "a pretty obvious choice", partially because of the success of the adaptation of her sister Emily's novel, but also because it offers new audiences something they want - a story that they already know.

"I absolutely think audiences need to feel some comfort in knowing what they are going to see - they don't like to take risks.

'Getting a balance'

"You can't blame people. If you're spending £30 or £40 on a ticket, you want to have a reasonably good idea that you're going to enjoy the experience and not end up thinking 'I don't understand this' or 'I don't like this'.

"And these days, we have to make sure we get enough audiences to bring in box office income, otherwise the company doesn't survive."

Image copyright Emma Kauldhar
Image caption The company toured a production of Wuthering Heights in 2015

He says the secret of tempting new patrons is to "choose the right title", which is the "most difficult thing we have to do".

"It's always about getting a balance but our programming policy is that we will have a mixture of about six different productions across the year.

"Some will be guaranteed to be successful box office titles, like Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and then we mix in other things that are a little bit more challenging but are great for the company and for the audience to have different experiences."

Challenging is exactly what Jane Eyre has been for choreographer Cathy Marston.

"Jane Eyre is not Swan Lake or Nutcracker," she says.

"People don't know that it's a ballet, but you can imagine it - because it's all dark passion, love and landscape - that it sounds really interesting.

For her, the difficulty has been to keep the story that the audience recognise while condensing it for the stage.

"In a ballet that is about an hour and a half, you're not going to do the whole of Jane Eyre.

"You have to take a particular perspective on it. Inevitably, some of it is ruled out by the fact that the medium we're using is dance, which wouldn't really be the language I would use to speak about religion, class or money - but the love story is alluring.

"When I was asked to do Jane Eyre, that image of Rochester and Jane at the end and the fire, those were the first things that spring to mind."

That said, even the novel's love story is a long and protracted one, which means Marston has had to chop through it.

'Turned inside out'

Image copyright Justin Slee
Image caption Marston (left) says she tried to find "a new angle" on the "iconic" story

She says despite the novel being "one of the iconic works of English literature", she was not afraid to be bold.

"I live in Switzerland and work a lot in German-speaking areas and they're very daring and gung-ho about what they'll rip out of a source in order to tell the story that they want to.

"In England, the writer is god and you follow the text and do your best to be true to that.

"In Germany, it's the complete opposite - the director is the one that you have to follow and the writer is simply a source to be cut up, turned inside out, done with as you please.

"I sit between both of those worlds. I love approaching English literature but I'm less afraid of putting myself into it and finding a new angle, because when you're working with such solid texts, why not bang against them until you find something that rings true to you?"

Finding the truth of Jane has been a task not just for Marston, but also the company's dancers, including leading soloist Hannah Bateman.

She says creating Jane has been difficult because the novel is "so wordy".

"There is so much in it that you can feel like you are drowning. You want to do it justice and tell all of it in as much detail as it is written, but it has been really hard because the beauty in it is the subtlety of it.

"Small details can make a massive difference in this."

'Very challenging'

She says Jane has been "really difficult to discover", much more so than her previous roles, which include the lead in Romeo and Juliet and Mina in Dracula.

"This has been very different and very challenging - Jane is so strong and she makes such bold decisions," she says.

"You're trying to tell the audience 'yes, she is falling in love with Rochester' but she never lets Rochester know until the very last minute, so you think 'I want the audience to know, but I don't want the person standing right next to me to'.

"And even though love is a huge element of it, it is not just a love story, it's this woman discovering who she is. There's a lot in it, but it's brilliant to be given that responsibility to tell that story."

She agrees with Skipper that "people feel safer if they have an idea of what they are going to sit and watch" but says she doesn't worry about ballet finding new audiences.

"I think dance is on the up. When people see it, they connect with it straight away. They love it. You can see people's faces light up.

"To see people physically commit to something in front of you is really powerful. Even if you can't get to a theatre, you can YouTube it and see if you like it that way. There's so much stuff out there.

"But I always say nothing compares to live theatre."

'Wasted opportunity'

Image copyright Justin Slee
Image caption Bateman (left) says she found the character of Jane "really difficult to discover"

Skipper says the appearance of ballet and dance on TV and in other media have helped bring the company's audiences to "a reasonable level", but he says they remain "pretty transient".

"Whenever you go somewhere, you would hope that if 100 came last time, then the majority of them would come next time - but it doesn't work like that. Audiences are very specific about the subjects and titles they want.

"My ambition for Northern Ballet is that people would buy the brand. It would no longer matter what the title is, it will just say Northern Ballet at the top of the poster and people will come."

While he admits that might be some time away, he says the drive for a "large pool of people who are interested in coming to see dance" continues, not least because of a need to find new revenue streams.

"We're being encouraged to earn more income for ourselves - through tickets or sponsorship - and reduce the reliance on statutory funding.

"The audience numbers are higher than last year, but what I can't say at this stage is if it is the same people coming back or whether people hated it last year and a whole load of new people are coming because they like Jane Eyre.

"Certainly, the sales have grown, which is a positive step and shows we're growing audiences in those areas and growing audiences for dance in general."

But his "maxim" remains a simple one - "any empty seat is a wasted opportunity".

Northern Ballet's Jane Eyre premieres at Doncaster Cast on 19 May, before touring to Richmond, Aylesbury, Wolverhampton, Stoke and Leicester.

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